Vermont Police Unions Resist Reforms
Quoted From Vermont Digger Article by Alan J. Keays available here.
“Police union leaders are pushing back against a legislative package of law enforcement reforms, but key lawmakers moving the measure forward say they won’t let that slow the process down.
The legislation, bill S.129, appears to be the most likely police reform measure to advance before next Friday, June 26, when the Legislature is expected to adjourn until August for a session to work on the remainder of the fiscal year 2021 budget.
The bill is currently in draft form in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Among its provisions is a statewide standard on police use of deadly force, a ban on chokeholds, and a measure tying state grants to compliance with racial data collection policies.
Backers of the bill say quick action is needed on police use of force reforms. The Senate Judiciary Committee has been taking testimony over the past two weeks, with an expectation of holding a Friday vote of the panel members.
However, some leaders of the unions representing law enforcement officers in Vermont say in some cases the reforms go too far and are moving too fast.
“I would feel better about a process that wasn’t as hastily put together as what it feels like this one is,” Steve Howard, executive director of the Vermont State Employees Association, said this week. “It may make sense,” he added, “for the Legislature and everybody to take a deep breath and say, ‘OK we’re going to take our time and make sure we do it right.’”
The VSEA represents more than 100 law enforcement officials in the state, including Vermont State Police lieutenants, game wardens, and Vermont Department of Motor Vehicles enforcement officers.
Michael O’Neil, executive director of the Vermont Troopers’ Association, the union that represents sergeants and troopers who work for the Vermont State Police, said this week that he did not support a provision to change Vermont’s police use-of-force standard or the ban on chokeholds — at least not in their current form or speed of passage.
“We have no problems with eliminating chokeholds from our policy,” he added. “We would have a concern over a law that bans chokeholds because you never know what you may need to do to defend your life.”
The legislation comes as protests around the country and in Vermont continue over the killing late last month of George Floyld, an unarmed back man, as a white Minneapolis police officer pressed his knee on his neck for nearly nine minutes and three other officers at the scene did not intervene.
Senate President Pro Tem Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, said Wednesday that the goal is to have the reform measures passed through the Senate and House by next Friday, June 26.
“I believe we should take action now because the policies can be done now,” Ashe said. “There is nothing stopping continued discussion to go back and revise, just like any other policy or law that we pass.”
He added he wasn’t interested in “the constant can kicking on these issues.”
Speaking last week to the Senate Judiciary Committee after the reform measures were put together in the legislation, Ashe talked of expected pushback on the measures.
The Senate leader told the panel “there will undoubtedly be calls from the law enforcement community, and the Attorney General’s community, and possibly others, to say that ‘it’s complicated, let’s delay, create a task force’ and so on.”
Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he was still pushing for a panel vote by the end of this week.
“My plan is to mark up the bill and try to pass it on Friday,” he said, adding, “Some people say it’s going too fast, I don’t know. That’s what they always say.”
Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, whose research focuses on police accountability, said this week that as he watches police reform efforts taking place around the country he has seen unions now on the defensive.
“Police unions have really had a free hand,” he said. “That has really begun to change.”
Walker added, “Change is in the wind and the events of the last three weeks has been unprecedented in my view.”
Elected officials around the country, he said, are responding to the public calls for reforms. “We are in a different era,” Walker said.
A section of the proposed legislation in Vermont partially mirrors California’s deadly use of force measure — considered the strictest in the country. Law enforcement in that state can only use deadly force when “necessary,” or when no other options exist.
There is no current statewide use-of-force policy in Vermont, with the legal standard that is applied in the state now based on case law that relies in large part on whether a reasonable person would have acted in the same manner.
O’Neil, the Vermont Troopers’ Association director, said this week that it’s too soon to move to a deadly use-of-force policy similar to California. “I think it’s something we need to understand a lot better,” he said. “The current standard is reasonable, and that standard has been developed over 50 years or more based on case law and litigation.”
O’Neil’s position on that issue is similar to the one that has been expressed by Michael Schirling, Vermont’s public safety commissioner.
O’Neil said he didn’t believe the matter was as simple as changing a word to “necessary” in a policy. “What does that mean to the legal standard and what will that do to the way we need to train to meet that standard?” he asked.
Regarding a provision of the legislation that would ban chokeholds, O’Neil said chokeholds are not currently a “control restraint tactic” used by state police. O’Neil also said there are criminal laws on the books, such as aggravated assault, that could be used if an officer is found to have not been justified in the use of a chokehold.
A recent draft of the legislation does not specifically use the term “chokehold,” instead referring to an “improper restraint.” An improper restraint is defined in the measure as “the use of any maneuver on a person that applies pressure to the neck, throat, windpipe, or carotid artery that may prevent or hinder breathing, reduce intake of air, or impede the flow of blood or oxygen to the brain.”
An officer using that maneuver on a person that causes “serious bodily injury to or death of the person” would face up to 20 years in prison.
O’Neil did say he was more supportive of other provisions in the legislation, including one that calls for requiring the use of body cameras for officers.
Howard, the VSEA executive director, said this week he was in the process of researching the particular provisions in the legislation.
“We’re still in the fact-gathering mode,” he said. “We have officers who are weighing in now about what they think about the proposals. Some think they’re fine, some think they are not fine.”
Vinny Ross, a spokesperson for the Burlington Police Officers Association, declined comment this week when asked after police reform measures. He did refer to a statement posted on the BPOA Twitter account. That statement did not specifically address provisions of S.219.
Other earlier BPOA statements on the Twitter account did address some of the reforms discussed in Burlington, including calls to cut the number of officers in the police department and redirect that money to racial equity initiatives in Burlington.
One of the BPOA statements called those proposals “radical and dangerous.”
Skyler Nash, a steering committee member for the Vermont Racial Justice Alliance, said it was “frustrating,” but not “surprising,” to hear talk that the legislation, S.219, was moving too fast.
“This needed to happen a long time ago,” he said of the reform efforts. “This need has been upon us for a very long time and it’s been upon us a lot earlier than George Floyd in Minneapolis.”
Nash said the measures in the legislation are not radical, adding that the use of force standard that ultimately passed in California was a “watered down” version of the initial legislation.
“To be frank with you, police officers need to get on board on this,” he said. “They’ve been given a lot of time to adjust to changes that are not big, small changes, small reforms, trying to push the needle and that hasn’t solved this problem so we need to think bigger.””